Clemson researcher studies soil challenges of organic farming Clemson News

FLORENCE, SC – The organic industry is the fastest growing agricultural segment in the United States, but low soil organic carbon, low soil fertility and poor soil structure are preventing Carolina farmers South to reap the benefits of this market.

Rongzhong Ye, an assistant professor at Clemson’s Pee Dee REC, received a USDA grant for a study on soil improvement to support organic vegetable production.

To help South Carolina farmers overcome these challenges and grow organic vegetables, Rongzhong Ye, an assistant professor at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center (REC), received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA -NIFA) for a 3-year study on soil improvement to support organic vegetable production.

“Increasing organic inputs, such as manure, compost, and cover crops, along with the use of conservation tillage, are considered one of the best management strategies to address these health issues. soil,” Ye said.

The use of various organic inputs in combination with various management practices can make the desired economic and environmental results less predictable.

“We want to determine if this diversity of organic inputs can be managed to improve soil health and organic vegetable productivity in southeastern soils,” Ye said. “We also want to determine if tillage affects these results.”

During this study, Ye and his team will strive to better understand how organic inputs and tillage affect soil biogeochemical processes essential to maintaining soil health. Researchers will study soil microbial communities, carbon dynamics, nutrient processes and changes in soil health, as well as yields and nutritional quality of organic vegetables.

Biogeochemical cycles are natural cycles in which elements or compounds move through an ecosystem. These cycles are essential to life and include the water cycle, the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. Ye and his team will study the cycle of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

“The goal is to advance our knowledge of soil biogeochemical processes that are important for the productivity, profitability and sustainability of organic vegetables,” Ye said. “We want to provide research-based insights to regional producers to improve ecosystem services and environmental stewardship on their farms.”

In addition to Clemson researchers, this project also involves researchers from the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center. This collaboration addresses the priorities of the USDA-NIFA Organic Transitions Program, which includes understanding the effects of using organic practices such as organic manure, mulch, and/or adding compost, as well as the use of cover crops and reduced or conservation tillage on soil health and fertility. . These priorities also include the development of technologies to optimize ecosystem services and the adaptation to climate variability of organic crops.

Rongzhong Ye, assistant professor, and Charles Parker, soil science technician, study soil samples at Clemson's Pee Dee REC.
Rongzhong Ye, assistant professor, and Charles Parker, soil science technician, study soil samples at Clemson’s Pee Dee REC.

Fieldwork will be conducted simultaneously in certified organic fields at the Pee Dee REC and the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center, Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, to account for variations in climate and soil conditions. The rotation will be tomato-cucumber-winter shelter. Tomatoes will be planted in April, followed by cucumbers. These crops will be managed in accordance with the 2020 Southeastern US Vegetable Crop Handbook. Cover crops and manure applications will be used with conservation (strip-till) or conventional tillage for organic input diversity. The cover crops will be cereal rye and hairy vetch, as well as combinations of these crops. Cover crops will be finished with creper rollers.

Organic farming is growing in popularity. The latest numbers from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service show that the United States had 16,585 certified organic farms in 2019, including 39 certified organic farms located in South Carolina.


This study is supported by grant 2020-51106-32363 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USDA-NIFA.

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